Guns -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

Is it too late for Americans to come to an agreement on rational gun laws?  Are we so enthralled with the necessity of guns that we can agree to no real limits?  As I ask the question, this week, in New Mexico there was again a shooting at a school.  I don't know the details, except two middle schoolers are fighting for their lives?  Is the only answer turning our schools into fortresses?  The gun obsession has all the markers of a religion, and it is a powerful one -- as Martin Marty demonstrates in this week's column.  I invite you to take a look and consider it carefully.

Monday | Jan 13 2014
                                                                                                           Photo Credit: Brittany Randolph / flickr
Impressed and depressed by the week-long media coverage of “Bridgegate” in Governor Christie’s New Jersey, I searched for a religious angle. What is wrong with New Jersey that televangelists, pundits, and sages covering it did not religiocify or spiritualize it?

With Sightings' deadline nearing, I had to turn elsewhere for a sighting. Lo! Here it was, in my own city—this week, Chicago’s attempt to address the issue of “gun control” was struck down by a US District Court. And here also, on my table and screen, were other headlines about this national issue, as in the January 4, 2014, New York Times headline: “Banished for Questioning the Gospel of Guns.”

The Times story told of Dick Metalf, a veteran Guns & Ammo magazine columnist and a Yale and Cornell historian, who wrote “Let’s talk limits” about gun laws. His heresy inspired the magazine publisher’s Inquisition, Excommunication, Exile, and other near-death experiences.

Chicago Sun-Times editorial, courageously and recklessly titled “We Need Rational Limits on Guns,” quoted former Guns & Ammo editor Richard Venal on the topic: “We are locked in a struggle with powerful forces in this country who will do anything to destroy the Second Amendment. The time for ceding some rational points is gone.” The Sun-Times editors’ comment: “Got that? How pathetic. God forbid anybody should cede a “rational point. . . .” Yes, we got it and get it daily.

Now and then bloggers and observers ask why my Sightings columns and the other things I write almost never mention the gun control debate. A quick check suggests that, at most, one column in a dozen years focuses on the subject.

Do I care too little? Having grown up in pheasant-hunting country in Nebraska, I grew up with rifle- and shotgun- hunter friends, who recognized rational limits and were aware of the destructive power of the irrational. (Today this would include AK-47 assault rifles and other instruments-only-for-killing which are easily available in our city and, no doubt, yours.)

Could my silence represent cowardice? Perhaps. But I have another reason, signaled in that New York Times headline: we are talking about “The Gospel of Guns,” the religion of many National Rifle Association members who—let’s be fair and notice—may be “plural belongers.” In other words, alongside the Gospel of Guns, they may also belong to semi-pacific and often-rational ordinary religions.
Often asked to define “religion,” I merely point to some features that I notice historians, theologians, and social analysts call “religion.” Highly condensed and coded, these features include the presence of 1) community; 2) preference for myth-and-symbol over  “rational” discourse; 3) metaphysical sanctions and explanations; 4) ceremonial reinforcements; 5) behavioral correlates. They are part of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, etc, etc. Most religions are weathered, well-worn, mellowed, open to rational inquiry and discourse, and, in our culture, slow to discipline. I’ve belonged to congregations in “confessional” church bodies for 85 years and can recall only two excommunications, back in rural Nebraska and Iowa decades ago.

Advice: Fight for rational, limited gun-control if you are so moved by the Spirit or spirits, but know that in the present culture you will have stepped beyond the bounds of politics and moved to question the heart of one of the vital, vivid religions active today.


Somaiya, Ravi. “Banished for Questioning the Gospel of Guns.” International New York Times, January 4, 2014.

Metcalf, Dick. “Let’s Talk Limits: Do certain firearms regulations really constitute infringement?” Guns & Ammo (December 2013).

“We need rational limits on guns.” Chicago Sun-Times Editorials, January 7, 2014.

Shaefer, Donovan. “Theses on Guns, Apocalypticism, and American Religion.” Religion Bulletin Blog, September 27, 2013.

Photo Credit: Brittany Randolph / flickr
Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at

Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She is co-organizing a conference, April 9-11, 2014: "God: Theological Accounts and Ethical Possibilities," at the University of Chicago Divinity School (mostly funded by the Marty Center and free to the public). For more information, visit:
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